Penn State Hazleton grows relationships within Spanish-speaking community

An admissions counselor standing with pen and paper in front of a student

Penn State Hazleton Admissions Counselor Henry Matute Coello provides guidance and support to students and families about the opportunities at Penn State Hazleton. His work is part of a larger effort at the campus to build meaningful relationships with the growing Hispanic population in the surrounding community.

Credit: Dekka Studios

Editor's note: Davis Yoshitani, class of 2025, is a student in Penn State's Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. Yoshitani completed this story as part of an internship with the University's Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost.

HAZLETON, Pa. — At Penn State Hazleton, the local community has seen a growth in Spanish-speaking families and students. In response, the campus is evolving and making different efforts to expand connections within the Hispanic community. 

Newly appointed Penn State Hazleton Chancellor Elizabeth J. Wright understands that the University needs to adapt to the changes in the community and work on making sure the opportunities found at Penn State are accessible to all.  

“Hazleton is located in a part of the state that is changing and growing,” Wright said. “One of the things we think about at Penn State Hazleton is how do we make sure that we are ready for these evolving times in the community and what will that look like? For example, what kinds of degrees should we be offering in order to meet the workforce needs of the community? Or how can we work with our donors to ensure that we are making a Penn State Hazleton education as financially affordable as we possibly can?” 

Working with a diverse community is an experience Wright had while at the University of New Mexico. Now as Hazleton's chancellor, she said she hopes to use the experience to continue growing the connection between the campus and the community. 

“In New Mexico, we were really interested in the idea that it wasn’t we who were going to change those students, but rather that we were going to be changed by them, and that our practices, our way of doing things in higher education, would need to evolve, shape, and grow in response to them and their needs,” Wright said. “Twenty years ago in Hazleton, we were starting to see an influx of individuals who were Spanish-speaking and it gradually increased over time so that we now have a broad percentage of students who are indeed in that category. Over time, we’ve evolved as a campus to really be more like what we were thinking about at New Mexico, so it is a sort of full-circle moment for me.”  

Penn State Hazleton has worked hard to learn about the area’s Hispanic population and already has put in place different initiatives to provide them with many different opportunities. Whether about an individual, a course, a program or a location, four different stories stood out from the University’s efforts. 

Henry Matute Coello’s role as a bilingual admissions counselor 

Penn State Hazleton has a valuable member of its Office of Admissions staff to give crucial guidance and support to prospective students and their families whose first language may not be English. 

Originally from Honduras, Admissions Counselor Henry Matute Coello uses his ability to speak both English and Spanish to mentor Spanish-speaking students and families from around the country through the Penn State admissions process. 

I enjoy meeting with families and explaining opportunities they can find at Penn State, how they can get involved at Penn State, and how they can take advantage of the different resources we have.

—Henry Matute Coello , admissions counselor

When Matute Coello came to the United States, he said, he had to learn English and navigate the college process himself. This difficult personal experience motivated him to help others in the position he once found himself in.  

“This is something I wish somebody had explained to me in the past. I was an adult learner, so I had to find out everything by myself,” Matute Coello said. “I had to first learn the language and then find somebody to explain the college process to me. That is why I take up the extra mile to try to explain all this information.” 

Matute Coello has worked on translating brochures and was recently featured in a marketing video where he spoke both English and Spanish. He also uses Spanish during meetings or events with Spanish-speaking students and families to help them become more comfortable and understanding of the admissions system, sharing the opportunities within a Penn State education using a preferred language.  

“They feel comfortable because they have somebody who can explain the admissions process and the financial process in their own language,” Matute Coello said. “I enjoy meeting with families and explaining opportunities they can find at Penn State, how they can get involved at Penn State, and how they can take advantage of the different resources we have.”

If my team can communicate with them in a conversational way, and we can back it up with access to those who are proficient in Spanish or translational services, that helps our community, prospective students, and their families feel more welcome.

—Elizabeth J. Wright , chancellor, Penn State Hazleton

'Spanish in the Workplace'

Penn State Hazleton’s Spanish in the Workplace program has given faculty, staff and members of the community the ability to learn vital conversational skills in Spanish. For Wright, conversations in Spanish, even the smallest of interactions, can go a long way in growing relationships between Penn State Hazleton and the surrounding community, she said.

“We know that when we have students and their families come to campus, we are starting to see that the student is very conversant in English, but their family members may need some assistance and might benefit from being able to communicate in Spanish,” said the chancellor. “So, if my team can communicate with them in a conversational way, and we can back it up with access to those who are proficient in Spanish or translational services, that helps our community, prospective students and their families feel more welcome.”

At the start, Spanish in the Workplace was offered through the University to companies for their management staff or to anyone who wanted to take the course. Eventually, though, faculty and staff members of not just Penn State Hazleton, but also Penn State Wilkes-Barre and Penn State Scranton, became more interested in the course. From these campuses, 30-plus individuals joined the Spanish in the Workplace program and started taking classes.

Debra Conway, director of Continuing Education, was tasked with overseeing the organization of the new programming for the campus staff and faculty classes. Conway worked with the instructor to develop a syllabus and two sessions are being offered over the summer.

Conway explained that the success of Spanish in the Workplace has come from a key feature of the program: The class’s versatile and adjustable curriculum allows University employees taking the course to learn different things from the business employees also taking the course.

“The instructor can customize the curriculum. If you come in with a particular need and you share it with her, she will help you work through it so you can do that communication in Spanish,” Conway said.

Participants are not becoming fluent in Spanish, but they are taking important first steps to become more aware and understand a different language, Conway said. So far, they have expressed that they find the class helpful.  

“I did a poll, and everyone is coming back saying it is absolutely wonderful,” Conway said. “They are learning a lot in this class now.”  

Conway said the importance of the program lies in the fact that it is bringing the community together and giving people the tools to foster new connections or strengthen established ones through Spanish.  

“There are a lot of people that want to read Spanish or speak even a little bit of it, and they don’t know where to go,” Conway said. “Penn State Hazleton can meet that need and we can offer these training programs at a low cost to the individuals, and they can develop their skills.”  

Hispanic Heritage Month and the Latinx Heritage Club 

Penn State Hazleton has been putting a lot of focus and effort into the upcoming celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month this fall, with programming designed to help reach students and teach them more about Hispanic heritage.

Rob Knight, associate director of Student Services and Engagement, is currently co-chairing the planning committee of this year’s celebration. Knight shared how it is Penn State Hazleton’s goal to help educate the local community on all heritages, but with the community’s demographics, Hispanic Heritage Month has become very important. 

“The local Hazleton community’s Hispanic population is large and significantly increasing," said Knight. "So, this is the primary reason we are putting a lot of focus and effort into Hispanic Heritage Month.” 

Knight explained that the programming and activities aim to help build and strengthen a relationship between students and Penn State Hazleton. This relationship increases retention and helps gives students a sense of belonging. 

“It comes down to retention,” Knight said. “If people do not see themselves in what the University or campus is doing, they are not going to stay there. To have a solid relationship with our students, we need to keep them. To keep them, we need to represent them, their ideas, and their values. We must make sure our programming is on point with what people want, even if it is out of our comfort zone because we have not done it before. It is all about trust and understanding; the student has to trust the University and the University has to understand the student.”  

Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Already, Knight and the planning committee have begun their work. The committee is tentatively planning for the completion of the new Center of Multicultural Engagement, which is currently under construction and anticipates opening during the month. In addition, Knight said he would like to have a group of students read the play “West Side Story,” watch the 2021 movie, and tour the area in New York City where the movie was filmed. The story has a lot of themes of Hispanic heritage present and deals with discrimination and race, explained Knight. As the month nears, the committee will continue to organize the different events that will take place.

Another area of focus at Penn State Hazleton that provides students with a sense of belonging is the Latinx Heritage Club. The club was originally the Spanish Club before being broadened to encompass all Hispanic populations and to focus on heritage and not just language; the students chose to use "Latinx", a gender neutral term for the Latino community, for the club's new name.

The club holds talks and activities related to Hispanic food, celebrations, history, language and more. The club also will hold fundraisers throughout the year and celebrate popular holidays in Hispanic heritage, like the Day of the Dead.

Like any club, the Latinx Heritage Club gives students an opportunity outside of the classroom to build relationships and complement their academic experience, said Knight. Students that take Spanish courses at Penn State Hazleton say they often find themselves joining the club to learn more than just language and dive deeper into heritage. Knight also spoke on the importance of the club being a place where students can learn more about a subject or topic without the stress of having to focus on grades.

“Any opportunity to get people to share a common goal outside of the classroom is important,” Knight said. “There are only so many things you can do during class time in one semester. But, if you offer opportunities outside of class time related to the same subject, there is a lot less stress and responsibility because it is not graded. You might have social experiences in class, but they are graded. That is very different from an ungraded get together outside of the classroom. They help people grow as individuals.”

Hazleton LaunchBox

The Hazleton LaunchBox supported by Pasco L. Schiavo, Esq. has been providing support and educational programming to Penn State students and any community member interested in starting their own business. William Andahazy, entrepreneurship education coordinator at the Hazleton LaunchBox, spoke on the location’s role for Hazleton business.

“The Hazleton LaunchBox is an early stage business incubator that provides programming focused on de-risking the startup process and making entrepreneurship accessible to everyone,” Andahazy said. “We offer no-cost programming, individual coaching, and co-working space, and we assist entrepreneurs in taking actionable steps to build a sustainable business.” 

Part of the Invent Penn State initiative, the Hazleton LaunchBox has connected with the community through assistance in business and entrepreneurship endeavors. However, the location also keeps a strong connection to the Hispanic population of Hazleton by developing programming in both English and Spanish.

In fact, the Hazleton LaunchBox has a successful Spanish-only speaker series that brings in different presenters from around the world to talk about topics on entrepreneurship and growing small businesses. Fermin Diaz, entrepreneurship facilitator at the Hazleton LaunchBox, runs this series. Diaz said he believes the series serves multiple causes.

“This series has a dual purpose,” Diaz said. “One is to serve as normalization of how we see an entrepreneur. There is a stigma about entrepreneurship and often people think it is like big tech companies or there are no regular people out there doing entrepreneurship. The other purpose is to teach specific skills around how entrepreneurs can make it and what skills you need in your business.”

When Diaz is not working on the series, his role at the Hazleton LaunchBox sees him working to translate materials from English to Spanish. All his effort helps connect the community with the Hazleton LaunchBox’s resources and gives everybody who comes to the location for assistance a chance to succeed.

“The most important thing that the LaunchBox has to offer is a community resource,” Diaz explained. “It is not about the structure. It is not about the brand of the University. It is about how we create community. We are working hard to capitalize on the potential in every single human for the good of our community, the state, the country and the world. We are creating a community of entrepreneurs, no matter what language you speak.”

‘We celebrate that diversity; we are proud of that diversity’

For Wright, the programs and individuals that built connections within the community of Penn State Hazleton are responsibilities laid out in the University’s land-grant mission, he said.

“The land-grant mission, that idea of bringing access and affordability of education to students across the commonwealth, is alive and well,” Wright said. “I am so proud of this institution for acknowledging who we are in Pennsylvania, and I am proud of us for saying that who we are is changing. We celebrate that diversity; we are proud of that diversity; we are proud of how we might work together to ensure that everyone in the commonwealth has a place at Penn State.”